Trump victory boosts concern over state surveillance and encryption policy
Concerns have been heightened over the impact of Donald Trump’s surprise election victory on US state surveillance and government access to encrypted information.
Trump’s campaign was not well-received by technology companies and civil libertarians, who disagreed with the calls for both closing off parts of the internet to limit militant Islamist propaganda, and the proposed boycott of Apple products over the company’s refusal to help the FBI unlock an iPhone associated with last year’s San Bernardino, California shootings.
The FBI subsequently dropped its legal case after it managed to bypass the iPhone’s security features without Apple’s help.
Trump has also threatened antitrust action against Amazon and demanded that tech companies such as Apple build their products in the United States.
While he was vague on his telecommunication policy during his campaign, there is speculation that he may also want to scrap net neutrality rules established by the US Federal Communications Commission.
The battle over encryption could heat up quickly with Trump’s win and the re-election of Republican Senator Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.
Burr spearheaded a failed effort last year to pass legislation requiring that companies build ‘back doors’ into their products that would allow government agents to bypass encryption and other forms of data protection.
He is expected to reintroduce the legislation next year, but with support from the White House this time.
Such requirements are fiercely opposed by the tech industry, which argues that back doors weaken security for everyone and the government has no business mandating tech product design.
“I imagine (Trump) is going to be a guy who is probably going to mandate back doors,” said Hank Thomas, chief operating officer at Strategic Cyber Ventures. “I don’t think he’s ultimately going to be a friend to privacy, and the fearful side of me says he will get intelligence agencies more involved in domestic law enforcement.”
Jan Koum, co-founder of WhatsApp, has said his company would be “extremely vocal” against any such effort, as it “would damage the reputation of American companies in the global arena.”
WhatsApp rolled out encrypted messages and phone calls on the service earlier this year.
Trump will enjoy Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. That one-party dominance makes efforts to enact any legislation in Washington more likely, though a broad coalition of Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republicans in the House of Representatives has repeatedly acted as a bulwark against efforts to expand surveillance or undermine digital security.
The potential for Trump to expand surveillance operations at the National Security Agency (NSA) is especially troubling to some privacy advocates because of the level of secrecy that shrouds the programs, said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.
The President-elect has said that he may want to place some mosques in the US under surveillance and suggested he may want to maintain a national database of Muslims.
A key revelation from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden was that few checks and balances were in place to prevent abuses of secret surveillance programs, Goitein said.
“You always have to ask yourself, can you trust the next administration, and the one after that?” she said. “And now there is a reckoning. Are people comfortable with a president Trump that has quite broad powers to conduct surveillance on Americans who are not suspected of any wrongdoing?”